The perfect trip: Thailand
Kum Jongtan is the founder of this village and led his people here after war forced them out of Burma. He sits barefoot on the floor of his wooden house, beneath framed pictures of Buddhist monks, his teeth black from chewing the betel nut that is the traditional caffeine-like pick-me-up amongst the tribes. ‘We walked through the jungle for 10 days and 10 nights until we found this place,’ he recalls. ‘At first there were only 11 families, and we drew lots for where we would build our houses.’
Three decades later, the village has grown exponentially, and it now offers homestays so that visitors can meet hill tribe people, or go trekking in the mountains. Kum is glad that his tribe’s nomadic days are over – Thailand has become too built up, he says, and there is no more land to move into. ‘But Thailand is a good place to live. There is peace and there’s no need to keep moving.’
Across the road from Kum’s house, a woman named Fon Por-Tow sits on her porch, dressed in tribal finery – a startlingly bright purple and pink velvet jacket, adorned with silver coins. She pulls some purple wool from her homemade loom and begins to weave, an intricate dance of fingers and thumbs. She is making a shoulder bag, decorated with patterns that bear traces of previous generations’ travels through India and Burma. The Palong’s distinctive colours were once made using natural dyes provided by the jungle, such as the purple skin of the mangosteen fruit, but now, she says, she buys chemical dyes in Chiang Mai: it’s easier, and the colours are more vivid. In the heart of the jungle, it’s a sign of how the modern world is creeping in, but the loom still rattles as it has for generations and the people retain their traditions along with their deeply cherished independence.
Khao Sok National Park: Best for nature
The heat hangs over Khao Sok National Park like a hot, wet cloth. This is jungle country, deep in Thailand’s southern tropics, and every step along the trails that wind through the park is weighed down with a hot compress of humidity. A cool consolation is the extraordinary scenery: the primeval forests of Khao Sok, which rise and fall with the huge limestone mountain peaks that stand sheer and abrupt against the sky.
The forests are thought to be more than 160 million years old. Save for a few rubber plantations, this is virgin jungle, unaltered by human hand. The topography of the canopy, the evolutionary battle between the trees stretching to the sky, is one that has been decided by nature alone. As the path continues through the greenery, there is a sense that this is how the world must have looked before the arrival of man. Everything is supersized – copses of bamboo tower above the trails, while the fan palms are the size of semi-detached houses.
And it pulsates with life, from the twig that turns out to be a leaping insect to the ‘shy plants’ who snap their leaves shut when disturbed by wind or water, not to mention the tribes of bright beaked hornbills, gibbons, wild elephants, leopards, and millions of insects. All of these creatures combine their wing-rubbing, squawking and howling to make a constant din that has been charitably described in some quarters as a ‘jungle orchestra’ – a high-pitched drone, oscillating and reverberating endlessly. As the day slides into dusk, the bigger insects, such as the black-winged ceconda beetle, join in the chorus, and the pitch rises to that of an ear-shattering fire alarm or an industrial drill.